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West Solent Solar: community at the heart of local energy project

Posted by Tasha Kosviner on 27 March 2015 at 12:20 pm

On the south coast of England, on a patch of land facing the Isle of Wight and the English Channel beyond, a sea breeze blows, cooling a solar array.

Not everyone knows this but cool conditions improve a solar panel output. This is because electrons flow faster in cooler temperatures so a higher voltage and thus a higher power output is achieved.

But that’s not the most impressive thing about this 2.4MW installation near Lymington in the New Forest.

That prize has to go to the fact that it was set up and is now owned and operated by a community group. West Solent Solar cooperative was set up in late 2013 to realise an ambition, spearheaded by Anthony Woolhouse, to create a community energy generation project.

“I am a Quaker and in 2011 Quakers committed to become a low carbon sustainable community,” Anthony explains. “This is my contribution. If local people own and use the electricity generated then there will be less opposition to renewable energy.”

The co-op now has 500 members and 50 bondholders with over 50 per cent of members living within 30 miles of the site. The site started supplying the grid in September 2014 and is expected to generate c.2,500 MW per year.

Each shareholder earns a return proportional to their investment and everyone has a stake in the management of the co-op. It is just the kind of story of a community pulling together to take control of their energy supply that we love here at YouGen.

So how did Anthony make it happen?

“I started off by talking to friends and then held local meetings to test for support,” he explains. “I identified the site – a restored gravel pit – and once it became apparent that there was enough local support, I bought the site, which I now lease back to the cooperative.”

Once a small group was formed they approached Energy4All, a non-profit group that supports community groups through the legal set up and financial modelling of their operations. The co-op sold shares and bonds in late 2013 and, impressively, raised £2.6m needed to see the project through to realisation.

“We did not receive any grants since the Rural Communities Energy Fund said that our area – the New Forest! – was not rural and the FSA said we were not a deprived area,” says Anthony.

“Nonetheless, we kept the entry investment level low at £250 so that as many who liked the concept could invest. Each member earns a financial return and participates in the management of the co-op. However much people invested they still only have one vote.”

Anthony’s emphasis on community also helped to see the project through planning.

“We did a lot of talking to the neighbours before we went to planning and the application passed without objection,” Anthony explains. “As a community project there was a lot of support.”

And financially speaking, has the scheme been a success?

“The first six month’s production has been good,” says Anthony. “We seem to have done better than we forecast in our prospectus. It’s too early to tell what the long term prospects are but we will know more about how the finances stack up at the end of the first year of operation.”

The group is determined that the project has a positive impact on local biodiversity too.

“During the planning process we undertook the necessary soil survey, an ecological survey and a landscape design survey,” says Anthony. “But we haven’t stopped there. Group members helped plant a new hedge for wildlife all around the field and we have commissioned the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust to plant the whole site with wild flower seeds. They have also produced a biodiversity management plan for us.”

And it’s not just the local wildlife that is enjoying the new site. “We now show school and other community groups around the site and we have built an observation hill so that visitors can see the whole site from above. We had an open day last September (2014) which was attended by 250 local people,” Anthony says.

“We are working on a second project now to put solar panels on local schools and community buildings. We said at the beginning of our project that we wanted to create a renewable energy project that the local community will be proud of. We have done that.”

So the future for community solar is bright?

Well, despite the government’s proclaimed support for community solar projects, Anthony says the future for other projects is uncertain.

“The government are making it difficult for other community groups to follow,” he says. “For example we got tax relief for our investors through both the Enterprise Investment Scheme and the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme but this is being removed from cooperatives at the end of this month.

More significantly the Financial Conduct Authority will not register any new energy cooperatives as they claim that they are not true cooperatives. 

And there are still issues with new energy projects and grid connection. West Solent Solar are currently trying to find a second site for expansion but sadly, they are finding that the local grid infrastructure is such that it cannot cope with new embedded electricity generation.

Community energy projects are still successfully launching across the UK but there is a lot more the government can do to support them.

More information about Community Renewables on YouGen

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